Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Links and Resources: August 19th, 2008

Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.
W.B. Yeats

and with that, let me toss out a few interesting tidbits:

  • Son of Citation Machine helps you build a proper citation in various formats (MLA, Chicago, etc). You pick the format, source type and then fill in the form. Son of Citation Machine returns a properly formatted citation.
  • My recent post on effective communication reminded me of a set of stories from Morning Edition on Email. Titled The Email Age, there are ten stories ranging from email embarrassments to information overload.
  • You might remember a post from a few months back on computer science and creativity. I talked about captchas, those blurry letters and number you retype to prove you are a human being. NPR has had two radio pieces this summer on captchas in general and the recaptcha project specifically. Turning Verification Codes into Books was featured on the show Day to Day and Web Security Words Help Digitize Old Books was featured on All Things Considered last week.
  • Network World ran a piece on the networking skills gap that is emerging. New areas of networking are becoming in demand (Voice over IP, Wireless) and many networking people were drawn into security over the last few years. Could be an area for retraining that community college programs can focus on. As with any prediction from a trade journal or research firm, your mileage may vary (YMMV).
  • Computerworld is running an article called IT Careers in the Cloud, discussing how IT roles will change as some or all of the applications get moved to a hosted model. A hosted model is one in which a vendor hosts the application and data, and that application is made available to the users via the web. It is sometimes called Cloud Computing (the internet represented as a cloud shape in network diagrams), utility computing, software as a service or hosted computing.
  • The Employment Disconnect in CIO Insight asks whether the it is possible for there to be both a shortage of skilled workers and a cadre of IT professionals that can't find work. The author thinks there is and I agree. This is, in my opinion, the real opportunity and challenge for community colleges. Experienced professionals often need just a few, targeted, specialized classes that give them extensive hands-on experience with a technology or technique. No degrees, no certificates, no "for Dummies" books as the text.
  • Your Degree may be the Last Thing That Gets You a Job argues that several skills, like communication and team work, are more important to academic ability, unless it directly relates to the job at hand. Although this is a UK study, the findings seem to be consistent with others I've read and posted here.
  • High-Tech Job Growth Heats Up New York, Seattle gives some stats on the job market locally for high-tech workers. Stats are a little stale, they are for 2006, but it does point to some recent data too. Things are changing and those numbers may not remain as rosy. Still, right now I'd rather be a network administrator than a house framer.
  • and something a little more light-hearted - How 2.0: Make a Twittering Teddy Bear. This video shows you how to modify a talking teddy bear to interface with your computer and speak all your Twitter tweets. Even if you don't know what Twitter is (come on, Google it) and have no intention of ever building the Six Million Dollar Bear, you'll like this one.
It's the end of the summer so I'd like all the teachers to take a deep cleansing breath/margarita. See, doesn't that feel better.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Communication breakdown

I'm with Eva at a working session in Montreal for the weekend. It's one of those "attendees can bring their wife" meetings. For this one I am "the wife". It's not the first time and isn't likely to be the last. It's a good sign (for me and for the profession) that every year more of "the wives" are husbands.

As a result of being in Montreal, I've been reading the Globe and Mail each morning. Yesterday's edition had a story on accepting certain common misspellings as allowable spelling variants in university level work. The original article by Ken Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University, was published in The Times Higher Education edition. Mr. Smith is "fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling". His recommendation is to pick twenty or so commonly misspelled words and make those misspellings acceptable spelling variations.

I'm not going to accuse Mr. Smith of crimes against the English language in this blog, what with its misspellings, excessive parenthetical phrasing and technical jargon. Still, I have mixed feelings about his comments. On one hand, Mr. Smith teaches Criminology, not English. I can appreciate the fact that he is reluctant to take time from Criminology and allocate it to spelling. If a student's paper demonstrates a remarkable understanding of the criminal mind, but is filled with spelling errors, should the student lose a point, ten points or one hundred? On the other hand, the specific examples Mr. Smith gives are all errors that any spell checker would catch. I'm not sure if submitting a criminology paper with the word "judgement" is bad typing, bad spelling or bad spell checking, but it certainly is lazy. It's one thing to spell a word wrong and another to refuse to correct the spelling once it is brought to your attention (along with four optional spellings).

I would prefer that the education system inject the notion of effective communications once some basic level of spelling, grammar and vocabulary has been reached. Communications are effective if, at the end of the exchange, the receiver understands the information the sender wished to convey and nothing else. Effective communications are contextual sensitive to the receiver, the message, the situation and the medium. They may or may not be in the Queen's English.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago, an issue was raised to our Director of Finance. I had a vested interest in the outcome and took extra time to produce a well-planned, well-crafted, highly informative email on a subject. Unfortunately, the decision was made prior to me sending the email. Good vocabulary? Yes. Good spelling? Yup. Good grammar? Ya sure ya betcha. Effectively communicated? Uh, not so much.

This is why arguments over allowing text messaging shorthand (txtspk) in formal coursework deliverables drives me absolutely nuts. R U crazy? Of course it shouldn't be allowed. Within that context, txtspk is completely insensitive to the situation, medium and the recipient. Students taught effective communications skills would know this. For the record, it isn't just kids and their text messaging either. Does this email seem familiar to any of you business professionals?


I'm TDY to the SF office for a month. Ken needs the GL report ASAP with YTD, QTD and MTD summary. Would you handel this and give me a ring when it's done?

If you've worked in corporate American in the last 40 years you most likely know what Tami is asking. This informal note is effective because it's contextual sensitive to the business environment. Tami's use of undefined initials, the misspelling of handle and the lack of a formal closing doesn't take away from the effectiveness, in this context. Tami isn't likely to use the same language in her memo to the Vice President of Marketing summarizing her finding during her temporary duty assignment (TDY) in San Francisco (SF). The situation is different and she would adjust her communication style accordingly.

Let me toss out a few thoughts for your consideration:
  1. Students need know how to communicate effectively and be given the opportunity to demonstrate effectiveness in different settings. What might generally be considered good writing or good speaking may not make for effective communication in all situations. Further, broader acceptance of communications technologies may force refinement in their usage. For instance, text messaging does require its "own" language, but you might need variants for you roommate and your CEO (yes, you will be text messaging your boss in the near future).
  2. School is one of the few places where students practice formal communications. Not to contradict #1, but some assignments should be very formal. Don't wimp out and let them use text messaging shorthand for those projects (unless, of course, it's a study of text messaging).
  3. Don't forget about graphical communication skills. Everyone asks for good written and oral skill, completely forgetting how valuable graphical representations can be in communicating information. Flow charts, data models, bar graphs and maps are all extremely effective tools when done properly.
  4. Email seems a particularly tricky beast because it replaces both formal and information paper communication as well as informal oral communication. As a result, it is easy for a casual, perhaps even sloppy style from an email about tomorrow's team lunch to bleed over into the email to your new sales prospect.
I just hope I didn't mispell anything in this post. ;-)

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Googley Advise from a Cool Cat

Cool Cat Teacher Vicki Davis highlights a post from the Official Google Blog on what they look for in an employee. The Google post encourages students to Major in Learning. Their priority is people with good non-routine problem skills. They identify five factors that they look for, including analytical reasoning, communication skills, experimentation, team players and passion and leadership. While my four person development team is in a significantly less competitive environment than Google, the skills listed in the post are no less important in my hiring decision.

For me, this demonstrates a move away from a mass-production, process-oriented environment to a more open, agile workplace marked by projects and a shifting business environment. Life simply doesn't come at you in a nice, predictable pattern anymore. (Did it ever?)

In her post, Vicki goes on to pose the question "what does majoring in learning look like"? Not being a teacher, administrator, or even parent I've tried to steer clear of the "how" question and limit my advisory board/bored comments to the "what" and "why" questions. At the risk of crossing that line, let me take suggest three "what's" that a person majoring in learning must have:
  • an understanding that school is a subset of learning, and not necessarily the most important one. As a result, these people will have the skills, tools and attitudes necessary for continuous life long learning (both professional and personal). This also means that you don't have to go to college to major in learning.
  • an appreciation of the fact that knowledge has a shelf life. New learning sometimes adds to our understanding and sometimes replaces it. Majors in learning don't confuse certainty with correctness.
  • the confidence to get things wrong in a safe and appropriate setting. Getting things wrong is a necessary component of getting things right, so those majoring in learning are allowed to get things wrong without penalty. Still, it is important to demonstrate "right" most of the time (new software release, brain surgery, etc), so the major in learning knows how to use prototypes, test environments, pilots and sabbaticals to be wrong safely.
I'm sure Vicki would love to hear any ideas you have.

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